By Prof Nick Barker and Dr Graeme Codrington, TomorrowToday

Difference matters. Globalization has resulted in increasing uncertainty, interdependence and complexity, coupled with accelerating and non-linear change. It has also resulted – unexpectedly – in a growing emphasis on difference. While the world is flatter and superficially more homogenous, our differences have become increasingly important. The 21st century challenge for leaders is not merely how to manage or cope with difference, but how to lead diversity.

Difference is both an asset and a liability. When harnessed successfully, it fosters innovation, develops resilience, boosts productivity, enables problem solving, and enhances morale in the workplace. It also allows for smoother entry into and operating within new markets. When mishandled, it results in communication breakdowns, frustration, lack of productivity, misunderstanding and conflict that cripples everything from small teams to global business negotiations.

The key problem is a failure to distinguish between two concepts that are frequently confused: variety and diversity. Variety is the simple fact of difference, a surface characteristic visible at a glance. This prevailing view of difference is grounded in how we are “different from” one another. Diversity, by contrast, is a dynamic, innovative achievement that emerges over time under strong leadership. In this case, people are “different for” each other. Difference is not something to be tolerated, but an asset to be leveraged and a source of competitive advantage. This shift in mindset – from variety to diversity – involves learning to appreciate difference: that is, to both “value” difference and “add value” to difference. Leaders must learn to create a workplace where differences are intentionally activated for business success. Employees need to become “different for” the team and the company in ways deemed valuable by others.

Filters: the method for learning to lead diversity

If this is the goal, then leaders clearly need a few new skills. A crucial first step is to learn to identify one’s own “filters” and the filters of all the team members.

We all perceive and interpret the world through filters (or lenses). Examples include: culture, gender, age, personality, race/ethnicity, religion, class, sexuality, education, health, and “futures” (how we think about change and the future). These filters are often unseen by us, as we simply consider them to be the “normal” world around us. And we mistakenly assume other people see the world the same way.

Identifying your filters and, more importantly, recognizing their order or hierarchy (this can fluctuate depending on context) is an important tool for enhancing self-awareness and developing empathy by understanding others from their point of view. Consciously or unconsciously, we default to our dominant filters to make sense of human behavior. In a given situation, competing perspectives, explanations and reactions are frequently grounded not in different filters, but in our personal filter hierarchies. By identifying these hierarchies, we can learn to recognize when dominant filters influence our personal behavior (biases, triggers and blind-spots) and that of others, enabling a more informed and sophisticated leadership response. By highlighting difference, we will also discover ways to intentionally lead diversity.


As an example, one of the most useful filters is that of different generations. The way people younger and older than yourself see the world is very different these days.  This so-called ‘generation gap’ influences expectations, attitudes and behaviors. Generational filters develop early in life, shaped by the political, economic, social, educational and cultural norms of the day in the first decade and a half of your life. Understanding these filters requires a quick history tour of the forces at play in the early years of each of your team members. This has impacted many of their approaches to work, including their affinity with technology, their willingness and ability to work in teams in certain team styles, their approach to authority, their need for supervision (or not), their ability to work remotely, their need for meetings, and so many other factors. Each of these issues may be small factors on their own, but they all add up to the experience we have of working in an office or interacting with a client, and they make all the difference in the world to how easy, interesting and energizing it is to work with others. They therefore affect productivity, creativity and resilience directly.

By understanding the impact of different generations, inside and outside your organization, you can improve customer relationships, and the productivity and interactions of your teams.

The reason that generations is a useful filter to examine in the world of work is that it is one that people find fairly easy to talk about. Gender, race and religious filters can quickly raise people’s barriers and sensitivities and can be difficult to engage in the workplace. But people find speaking about generations – about Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y, and so on – quite easy, and even fun to do. It’s a great place for leaders to start to engage their team about difference. We don’t all need to act like Boomers to get the job done. In fact, teams function better when the different generations keep their distinct approaches and assumptions in tact, but make space for other perspectives and options at the same time.


Another example of a filter is culture. Like generations, culture is a powerful filter and a key component of learning to lead diversity. Today’s global leaders must appreciate the impact culture has on all aspects of business and must develop advanced cultural intelligence.

Humans are cultural beings. Anthropologists suggest almost all aspects of human existence are culturally mediated, but culture is mostly invisible, beneath the surface. Regardless of borders, groups of people perceive the world through their own set of beliefs, values, attitudes and assumptions. Culture is learned and shared. It provides a sense of identity and belonging. It helps us understand the world and shapes how we behave towards others.

You need to understand key ideas and pitfalls like “ethnocentrism” (the interpretation of other people’s behavior in terms of your cultural values), “naïve realism” (the mistaken belief that other people see the world the same way as you do), and “cultural relativism” (the importance of understanding a different culture from within; that is, from an indigenous point of view). As a leader, you need to discover how to remain open-minded and flexible, how to communicate and connect with people culturally different from yourself, thereby developing relationships, building trust and fostering confidence.

Making Difference Matter

These new skills for leaders are not easy to learn. And yet, actually they are. They become easy when you take the first, vital, large step of making a decision that you WANT to engage with difference. That is a non-negotiable starting point for everyone who wants to successfully lead diversity. The second key step is to embrace difference – seek it out, celebrate it, even create it if necessary. By focusing the spotlight on difference, we will begin to learn new ways to intentionally lead diversity. That is, to be different for, not from, each other. To value and add value to difference. After that, the next steps depend on where you are now and where you want to go. Key skills required along the way include listening, emotional intelligence, courage, empathy, self-reflection, adaptive leadership and learning.  But it all starts with a decision to make difference matter.  That’s what you should work on today.

Prof Nick Barker is a world expert on leadership development and the role of the leader in times of crisis and change, and Dr Graeme Codrington is a leading futurist and expert on the people aspects of the future world of work.  They work together at TomorrowToday, a strategic insights consultancy with bases in Africa, Europe, North America and Asia.  Contact them at [email protected] or [email protected], and follow their daily blog at

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